Law 360 Reports on Pending COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Eviction & Foreclosure Moratorium

Originally published in Law 360

On Thursday, April 22, 2021, Emma Whitford reported on the recently enacted COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the impending expiration of the eviction and foreclosure moratorium, currently set for May 1st. The full text of the story is below; the original is available via the link above.

NY Rent Relief Yet To Drop As Eviction Law Winds Down

By Emma Whitford
April 22, 2021

Two weeks after New York finalized requirements for the distribution of more than $2 billion in federal pandemic rental assistance, the state agency that will administer the program is still working out when it will launch.

A representative of New York's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which has been tasked with writing program details and managing logistics, told Law360 on Thursday that the agency is "moving expeditiously to get the funding to the New Yorkers who need it most," and that the program will likely go live sometime in May.

But this is cold comfort for tenants, who are concerned about the impending May 1 expiration of a statewide anti-eviction law that has paused thousands of eviction cases in housing court. Landlords are also anxious for the program to launch. 

"I get calls every single day from renters, from landlords, from offices of members of Congress, being like, 'What's going on? Where's the program?'" Rachel Fee, director of the New York Housing Conference, told Law360.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, chair of the New York Senate's housing committee and sponsor of the anti-eviction law, told Law360 on Thursday that the Legislature is discussing extending it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently extended its own anti-eviction rule through June, though it's more qualified.

"We are discussing extending the [law] legislatively," Kavanagh said. "There is not an agreement as of this moment. I think it is absolutely critical that we extend it, and we will be in session in the coming week and I think we should do it."

"I know OTDA has been talking to vendors about how to create the [rent relief] application portal, but it's really critical that we get this program up as soon as possible," Kavanagh added.

Ellen Davidson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society in New York City, told Law360 that she would be less concerned with the rent relief launch timeline if longer-term eviction protections were certain.

"If it weren't for the worry that we will be without an eviction moratorium after April 30, I would say that while I want [the rent relief program] to open, it's more important for it to open well," she said.

Since late December, most tenants across New York have had the option to submit a special form stating that they are hurting financially, or that moving would pose a serious health risk, in order to pause their eviction case. Nearly 30,000 such forms have been submitted in pending New York City eviction cases as of April 21, according to the Office of Court Administration. Only 15 eviction warrants have been issued in the city this year so far.

Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition of tenant groups, would like to see even broader anti-eviction protections in the form of a blanket moratorium with no exceptions until six months after the pandemic ends, according to Esteban Girón, an organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union.

But landlords and their advocates told Law360 that it is time for New York's anti-eviction law to lift. For more than a year, a patchwork of laws, court policies and executive orders have halted or slowed most cases in housing court. 

"Everything is opening back up — weddings, movie theaters, stadiums," said Joanna Wong, a Manhattan landlord and head of the group Small Property Owners of New York. "Cases need to be heard."

Representatives for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Assembly Leader Carl Heastie, both Democrats, did not reply to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told Law360 that "next steps are currently being discussed to ... ensure people are not forced onto the streets."

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told Law360 on Thursday that Jeffries believes the state's anti-eviction law should be extended while the state moves to distribute billions of dollars of rent relief from the federal government.

"Congressman Jeffries supports efforts to extend ... until the public health crisis is over or New York is able to get a rent relief program operational and accessible to every single person who needs assistance," the staffer said.

According to New York's budget agreement, renters will be protected from eviction once they submit applications for rent relief, and while the applications are pending.

If there is ultimately a gap between the end of the anti-eviction law and the start of the rent relief program, a spokesperson for the courts told Law360 that New York City judges will likely be receptive to tenant concerns.

"Understanding that adjournments are discretionary to individual judges and can't be guaranteed, it's safe to say that every housing court judge in New York City understands that a rental assistance grant has the potential to completely resolve a case and would grant any request from a tenant to adjourn a case so that they can ... apply for emergency rental assistance," courts spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told Law360.

But with more than 1,300 courts hearing eviction cases across the state, it's hard to be certain how all judges will proceed.

"New York City housing court is unique," Chalfen said. "There can be variances from city court to city court upstate."

When it launches, New York's $2.4 billion rent relief program will be open to households that can demonstrate pandemic-related hardship and housing instability.

More than $2 billion will be available to renters who make 80% of the area median income or less. A smaller allocation will go to renters with higher incomes. Renters can get up to 12 months of back rent covered, and can apply regardless of immigration status. Landlords who accept the funds must agree not to raise rent or evict the tenant without cause for a year.

There are indications that the rent relief could go a long way toward covering New Yorkers' pandemic-era arrears. A U.S. Census survey found that New York's statewide rent shortfall could be at least $2.5 billion as of January.

--Editing by Breda Lund.